Marshall McLuhan is often described in hyperbole: as a genius, prophet, huckster, wizard or charlatan. He was an academic who studied neither business nor management. Not therefore an obvious candidate for Pocketblog’s Management Thinkers series, you would think. But what he did offer were thoughtful provocations on the evolution of societies. And what serious manager, professional or business-person would not want at least a passing knowledge of that?
Very Short Biography
Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911, in Alberta, Canada, and he grew up in Winnipeg. He studied at the University of Manitoba, transferring from his engineering degree to a BA (1933) and then MA (1934) degree in English. He then moved to Cambridge University, where he earned another BA and MA, before earning a PhD in 1943.
He took a number of minor academic posts in Canada from 1944 until he joined the University of Toronto, where he remained for the remainder of his career. During the 1960’s McLuhan’s reputation grew and he became much in demand as a speaker and public intellectual. He suffered a stroke in 1979, from which he never fully recovered, and died on the last day of 1980.
McLuhan was noted for saying that most people did not understand his work. It was his standard challenge to critics, and he even lampooned this himself, when he appeared in a brief cameo role, in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, telling a pompous academic that ‘You know nothing of my work.’
So I will ‘fess up and say that I know nothing of McLuhan’s work, but this brief interpretation.
That means I will brush aside any debate about whether McLuhan truly foresaw the internet, whether the ‘Global Village’ was a utopian concept or a vision of alienation, and what he really meant by his most famous quote: ‘the medium is the message’ (see below). Instead, I want to focus on an insight that is, I think, of great value to managers: the idea of Four Laws of Media.
The Four Laws of Media
Technology will continue to change our culture and we need to understand the way it does so. McLuhan provided us a framework with which to do so. He identified four effects that technology has on culture. It is an extension of ourselves. New technologies have profound social, psychological and sometimes physiological effects, that can:
Amplify or extend part of our culture
Historically, writing extended memory, libraries extended our knowledge and telescopes extended our vision. More recently, aeroplanes extend our ability to move and the internet extends our ability to socialise and appreciate cats.
Obsolesce (displace) aspects of our culture
New technology displaces old. In the process, it makes some of our capabilities and social preferences less prominent in our culture. In storytelling, printing made oral storytelling obsolete and more recently, movies displaced theatre.
Retrieve elements that had previously been obsolesced
Ironically, as television gained much blame for displacing reading and compromising literacy in many western cultures, it is the mobile phone and texting that has retrieved literacy, and rap music that has retrieved poetry.
Reverse or ‘flip’ into something else entirely
A a technology strengthens it can contain the seeds of its own destruction – it can self limit. Car culture in many European cities is being flipped into bicycle culture, and internet devices are being flipped into a desire for ‘unplugged’ time. As a technology moves to an extreme, its nature will change – sometimes unpredictably.
This work was the culmination of McLuhan’s work; published shortly after his death. To me, it seems to transcend the hype and hyperbole. It is a useful model for considering the consequences of change and examining possible future scenarios. He saw technology as a primary driver of change when this was still contentious. Now we clearly see its pivotal role as a driver and an enabler of change. And for most managers, that is an important thing to get to grips with.
The Medium is the Message in 2 Minutes…
Courtesy of the Open University and BBC Radio 4.